During the launch of the new Istanbul Planning Agency -IPA were treated to a series of speeches by the mayor himself joined by Prof. Ilhan Tekeli, Prof. Richard Sennett and Prof. Saskia Sassen.

Changing local democracy and new city-making practices

Ekim Tan


Why and how does one participation process engage relevant parties and reach tangible results, while another leaves behind angry citizens or experts protesting outcomes? Today almost everyone disagrees with engaging residents during the later stages of a planning process, as it triggers resistance. In the meantime, we need to debate and seek clear agreements on ‘when’ best to engage ‘which’ external party and ‘how’. Play the City together with researchers from the University of Amsterdam, City of Amsterdam and Istanbul Planning Agency are inventorying and comparing active local democracy mechanisms and collaboration tools used for city-making in Amsterdam and Istanbul.

Amsterdam with the Coalitieakkoord [2018] and Istanbul with the Stratejik Plan [2019], appear to prioritize ‘citizen participation’ in spatial development processes. Both cities already have several running participation tracks in place depending on the question, community, and scale that they operate in. As Play the City, we have been following these developments carefully, while also contributing to some of these processes as a collaborative design tool [city gaming] in a number of cases in Amsterdam and Istanbul. With ongoing and projected processes ahead, it is a good time to take a step back to understand the dynamics behind these participation practices the two cities have adopted.

In search of a new local democracy [Istanbul]

After 15 years of mega projects including a new bridge on Bosphorus [opened in 2013], a canal connecting the Marmara and the Black Sea, and a new town plan about the size of Amsterdam, Istanbul enters a new period with its newly elected mayor. Current city vision is surprisingly moderate; prioritizing projects as affordable daycare centers, free transport for students and women with toddlers up to 4 years, revival of public parks and green belts, finalizing unfinished public transport lines, installing functional urban water management system, a ready to implement earthquake evacuation plan and revision of food chains connecting the city with the rural land and communities. A striking difference with the former period is the focus on local democracy. It is not a coincidence that guests joining the launch of the new Istanbul Planning Agency -IPA were treated to a series of speeches by the mayor himself joined by Prof. Ilhan Tekeli, Prof. Richard Sennett and Prof. Saskia Sassen. Hopeful but cautious, a new era had been announced during this meeting, where ‘collective intelligence’ would lead the city’s future.

Play Marmara, a regional development strategy game played by citizens as well as city mayors in 2019, Istanbul www.playthecity.eu

By the end of 2020, Istanbul has already witnessed numerous processes aimed at the participation of experts and citizens on envisioning and visualizing plans of varying scales. A dozen of urban design and and architecture competitions for prominent public squares [Taksim, Kadikoy, Bakirkoy, Salacak] opened up the way for a new generation of designers to respond to serious urban questions, also attracting over 350.0000 local residents to vote on their favorite design proposals. The design process claimed an exceptionally wide media attention where designers could share their design idea[l]s and discuss with the general public. Today, heated public debates continue on the failures and successes of these competitions. However, real gains are a transparent and trustworthy process aligned with a revitalized public debate about the role of design in a public arena. Image 2: Winning design of the Taksim Square Urban Design Competition ‘Taksim Senin’, which translates as ‘Taksim is Yours’.

Newly founded Istanbul Kent Konseyi, led by a woman/architect Tulin Hadi, is a platform representing 84 civil organizations responsible for checking public administration processes on civic participation. The Vizyon 2050 Office, established under the umbrella of the IPA, started work on envisioning long term policies such as migration, sustainable transportation and infrastructure, employment, energy, and urban resilience. A clear parallel with Sustainable Development Goals is paired with a clear mandate in developing visions through equal, democratic, and participatory decision making. Image 3: 17 principles of Vision 2050 Istanbul.

A new coalition [Amsterdam]

Although not as dramatic, still comparable changes have been taking place in Amsterdam. Since 2018, a local coalition governs Amsterdam where ‘democratisering’ and ‘inclusieve stad’ are central notions in the coalition agreement. Accordingly, residents of the city are more likely to be invited to meetings organised by the local government about the renovation of a street nearby, about the type of housing that is planned to be built in a given neighbourhood, or about the possibilities for transforming a gas heated home to one that is heated by the heat network burning waste. The city facilitates self-built housing programmes and energy cooperatives run by neighbourhood foundations. City project teams work with locally acting CityLabs [Buiksloterham] to ensure implementation of innovative ideas, sometimes pushing boundaries of existing regulations. Just as in Istanbul, a political agenda calls for an open democratic city-making. Unlike Istanbul however, there is a clear deadline for transitioning energy sources from fossil fuels to clean practices by 2030 and increasing pressure on the delivery of 50.000 new homes by 2025. Furthermore, the political agenda clashes daily with a decision-making procedure that now relies on central voting [gemeenteraad]; as a result of the termination of sub-municipalities [deel-gemeentes]. It is significant to mention that the established bureaucratic culture often reacts with suspicion towards citizen participation. Also in Amsterdam there is an ongoing debate on the performance of the local democracy for open city-making. Here the internationally praised open-city image of Amsterdam co-exists with an increasingly angry local terminology referring to frustrated citizens ‘participatie-moe’ distrusting even striking against city’s participation tracks with ‘participatiestaking’, eventually creating their own participation tracks for urban upgrading; such as the K-Buurt of the Bijlmeer.

United Streets of Amsterdam is a process aiming to expand the decision-making capacity of existing representative democracy practices in Amsterdam.

City gaming as part of a longer term process design

Play the City builds multiplayer city games that inform urban planning. City gaming is a design instrument, bringing various engaged parties to make collective choices for urban plans. It is a method built on the doctoral research conducted at the Urbanism Department of the Technical University of Delft [2014]. Play the City’s work so far has proven the persistence needed to innovate, develop and implement a design method to inform existing urban planning procedures. In the coming decade, we plan to expand our practice in supporting the design of the participation processes, in addition to creating new city games. The Mersin Citylab [2018–2020] experience, taught our team the importance of managing a process of two years with complementary design tools, experts and civic organizations. City games can extend their role from informing urban plans to becoming an integral component of decision making mechanisms, such as city council meetings, right to challenge and participatory budgeting. This is a development necessary to reinforce the legacy of city games so that engaged parties commit to its collective outcomes.

Years of procedures behind urban plans are tedious, not only for ordinary citizens but also for architects and urban designers. By whom, when, and how are numerous choices leading to these plans made is hard to follow. As city gaming has been employed in various stages of decision-making processes -from the initial research phase, to vision building, to the formalization of urban plans- we begin to decipher and understand the significance of understanding and improving these processes with inputs from a spatial designer’s perspective. Amsterdam and Istanbul are cities our team members both lived and worked in. A careful analysis of ongoing participation processes and employed tools while identifying success factors will support not only the quality of our work, but the practice in general.

Building a mutual learning process for Istanbul and Amsterdam

This research highlights the unique parallel between the current local democracy practices in Amsterdam and Istanbul; serious learning opportunities for cities and collaboration potential for experts. The urgency for innovating functional participation processes in Amsterdam is present in other Dutch cities as well. The new Planning and Environment Act [Omgevingswet] planned to be active as of January 1, 2022 makes it obligatory for all Dutch cities to open up their planning practices. Research conducted by Vincent Kompier and Toine ter Berg from Architectuur Lokaal published on the Mijnomgevingsvisie platform displays the ongoing struggle of local municipalities in forming their future city visions in collaboration with external parties. Cities are seeking answers to questions such as; what does ‘quality of physical environments’ mean exactly? How to involve non-experts in thinking and planning high quality spatial developments? Who makes the final decision about this quality? Whose responsibility is it to initiate and develop these ideas?

The Omgevingsvisie Amsterdam 2050 will be officially voted in the city council [gemeenteraad] in January 2021. Meanwhile, the Istanbul Vizyon 2050 team has been busy with ground research aimed to open up to a wider public in the coming year. The first half of 2021 will become a special moment for the two cities to interact, reflect and exchange knowledge; for the Amsterdam team to reflect and conclude from achieved successes and failed processes; while for the Istanbul team to potentially use these outputs in shaping their processes. In addition, experiments already held in Istanbul can become a possibility of reflection for Amsterdam. For example, designers’ and residents’ participation to the Amsterdam’s 2050 vision is one such case that can be related to designers competitions and public voting process in Istanbul. How are designers engaged in both processes? What are the spatial qualities achieved when compared to conventional processes? How is the public engaged? What is the level of interaction between designers and citizens? Where does the local city stand in the process as a leader or facilitator? How are the process outcomes evaluated? What do these outcomes really mean for the city’s spatial development?



Ekim Tan

architect, urbanist, game designer, writer, founder of Play the City and Games for Cities